Return of the big men
GEORGE McGee of Magilligan, Derry and Ulster was a full back of the old school. He wore a peaked cap when he played and it is said that when someone made him angry, he took it off and handed it to his goalie.
One Sunday the regular Magilligan goalie didn’t turn up and just before throw in, 17-year-old Seamus McLaughlin was press ganged from the crowd. As they were walking out onto the pitch, George took him aside.
‘Young McLaughlin, if the ball comes into the square its yours. Anything else that comes in, I‘ll take care of it.’
At that, George rubbed his hands and headed into battle.
In those days, the square was a battle ground. Every ball launched in high was an event. With the new square ball rule coming into effect last Sunday, we are back to the future. It is likely to have a significant impact on the championship and a positive influence on the way the game is played.
Full backs beware.
Galway stationed midfielder Paul Conroy on the edge of the square last Sunday and commenced to deliver long accurate ball in on top of him. It was reminiscent of those early Kilkenny blitzkriegs that have become part of the fabric of Irish life.
The high ball was driven in, the centre half forward and corner forwards timed their runs and sprinted towards goal as the ball was in the air. Then it was either knocked down to them by Conroy as they rushed in on goal or the two footed full forward took possession himself.
Either way, this simple tactic devastated Roscommon. Twelve months of working on defensive systems went out the window in 12 minutes, by which time Galway were 2- 5 to 0-1 up and the game was over. The other striking thing about it was how enjoyable it was to watch.
Kerry take the field this Sunday for their first outing of the championship against Tipperary.
They are a team built to go back to the future. In 2006, they were struggling badly for inspiration. Kieran Donaghy, fresh from TG4’s “Underdogs”, had spent his first full season for them at midfield and things were going from bad to worse. So when they came to play a dangerous Longford team in the qualifiers, Jack O’Connor decided to roll the dice.
He moved the big man to full forward and instructed his outfield players to bombard the square. The crowd gasped and laughed as he caught everything that rained down on him. He set up three goals and four points and in the space of 70 minutes his name was changed by unofficial deed poll from Kieran Donaghy to Star.
In the All-Ireland quarter-final, he punctured the cult of Francie Bellew, destroying him on the square, tousling his pristine hair and taunting the big Crossmaglen goalie. When he scored the killer goal after plucking a high ball from over Francie’s head, it signalled the end not just for Francie, but for that Armagh team.
The All-Ireland followed. In 2007, he continued to wreak havoc in the opposition square, capping another extraordinary season by scoring 2-2 in the final.
In that same year Donie O’Sullivan, legendary Kerry footballer in the 60s and early 70s, was at Clones with my father for the Ulster final between Fermanagh and Armagh. Fermanagh’s blanket defence earned them a draw, but not Donie’s approval. Asked afterwards by a well-wisher who he fancied for the replay, he muttered, “Not those f***ing basketballers.”
Little could he have imagined that within four years, they would all be, “F***ing basketballers.”
Kerry lost the final last year because like everyone else, they have become a team of f***ing basketballers. Their transformation is summed up in the fact that Kieran Donaghy, all six foot five of him, played at wing half forward that day. Rory O’Carroll, Dublin’s six foot full back, was the most relieved All-Ireland final debutante in history.
Instead of using their excellent kicking skills to move the ball quickly up-field, targeting the lethal axis of Donaghy, Cooper and O’Leary in the danger zone, Kerry hand-passed and solo-ran out of their defence.
By the time they hit the halfway line, Dublin’s blanket defence was waiting. Jack O’Connor’s unimaginative strategy was the only thing that kept the Blues in it.
It is no surprise in the circumstances that the Dubs’ crucial goal came from a stray Declan O’Sullivan hand pass as he soloed out of his own defence. Declan is a lethal forward. The problem is he’s rarely there these days, spending most of his time at the other end of the field. It is called killing the goose that lays golden eggs.
By subscribing to this brand of football, Jack O’Connor has handed inferior teams the opportunity to defeat Kerry. They should have beaten the Dubs well, and they would have if they had not abandoned the kicking game they are born to play. Another stark example was provided in the recent league semi-final against Mayo. Kerry again wasted Donaghy at wing forward.
Mayo’s game changing goal came when Donaghy, defending deep in Kerry’s half, played a stray cross-field pass. Imagine Micko asking the Bomber Liston to come back and help out in the defence?
The new square ball rule will surely force Jack to rethink. Strategically, the team has been in a mess for two years. Only the excellence of their individuals has kept him in the post. Star will now surely take his place in front of the goalie, blocking out his light and giving him a queasy stomach.
If their half forward line stays in position and they kick the ball quickly from defence to attack, who can possibly deal with them? Eight weeks at their training ground working on long accurate ball would virtually guarantee an All-Ireland, and a stylish one at that.
This will be the year of the full forward. The team kicking the ball will be rewarded. If Jack O’Connor is a talented manager, not – as I suspect – a lucky one blessed with superb footballers, Kerry, along with Crossmaglen, might just start the rescue of Gaelic football.
Who knows? In a few years, f***ing basketballers may just be a bad dream…